Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

When Is It Wrong To Laugh?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

There was a story in the paper the other day that made me very sad, about a police officer who was forced out of his job by racial discrimination, and is taking the Bedfordshire force to an employment tribunal. One of the charges is that fellow officers laughed at his beard. The terrible thing is, there IS something funny about his beard.

  Richard Littlejohn was certainly not slow to rush into print, roaring with laughter about the beard (complete with pirate cartoon) and slamming the man for seeking what Littlejohn calls “com-pen-say-shun”.

  But if you read the original story, it’s awful. They called him a “f***ing Paki”. They talked in front of him about how white policemen were “better” than ethnic minorities. They made him walk home from jobs, instead of picking him up. It’s sort of heartbreaking, thinking about this chap being all pleased to get a job in the police force, and trying to do his job as well as possible, and starting to realize he was being bullied, and feeling at first just disappointed and hopeful that it would get better… and then it got worse and worse until he was miserable and lonely and couldn’t do his job any more. Get past the beard, and there is something really lovely about his face: you can just tell he’s a good, nice person. He has such kind eyes. And there’s something so HORRIBLE about the result of him going to a tribunal (obviously not for money, but to take a stand against racism) being that he just gets ripped apart on a bigger scale, by Richard Littlejohn in a national newspaper. It must be so frustrating, and frightening. And yet, and yet, there is no denying that there’s something funny about his beard.

  Some people certainly do take life too seriously. Last Saturday, I went to a concert at the Barbican, of the music of Iannis Xenakis. The music turned out to be a wailing discordant noise, bit like torture. This sort of thing. It may be very clever and satirical and interesting if you know a lot about classical music, but I don’t; it just sounded to me like a terrible waste of violins. Anyway, then a man came on and played the trombone. It was totally preposterous. Just made a really silly noise. And he kept putting the trombone down, and it would be quiet for a bit, and then he’d wave it above his head, put it in his mouth and play another very silly noise. The sort of noise you’d hear if Barbara Windsor’s bra was springing off during a particularly strenuous exercise routine. Except he was doing it very, very seriously. I was in a group of about ten people and we started laughing. Couldn’t help it. We were laughing silently, but almost hysterically. You know how it is; the more you try to stop laughing, the more you laugh.

  A man in the row behind prodded a few of us angrily. He hissed that he couldn’t enjoy the music because we were laughing. I pointed out that we were laughing silently. He said yes, but our shoulders were shaking in his eyeline. I tried to explain that you can’t really help laughing - if it happens it happens. You can’t shout at people for laughing. But he was furious. At the end, he stormed off.

  I felt sorry for that guy too - his evening of cool discordant music punctured by the exasperating sight of twenty shaking shoulders in a row. But THAT, I say, is someone who takes life too seriously. He couldn’t see the funny side of the daft trombone, or even of people being tickled by it. And certainly, it’s important to fight against the People Who Take Life Too Seriously.

  But I’m quite sure that PC Javid Iqbal isn’t one of them. It’s cruel of the newspapers to spin the case as being about his beard, when it obviously isn’t. And Richard Littlejohn is a full-on school bully. It’s a properly sad, depressing story and I hope lovely PC Iqbal wins his case. I just have a feeling he’s an incredibly good man, who has obviously been so mistreated, and I feel a strangely strong desire for him to have a wonderful life with a great new job and colleagues who know how to behave; when I see his beautiful kind eyes, I sort of love him. And yet look at me - I put a link to a picture of his beard. And that’s because I think there’s something funny about it.

  But both things can be true at once, can’t they?

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Kenn at 1:19 am on March 12th, 2009

Firstly just want to say thank you for the blog, seems to have been ages since you last did one (i know it was only 10 days ago), Secondly i just saw your EPT Monte Carlo advert on Sky sports, very nice, i thought it was good (far be it for me to say whether you’re doing well or not).
Thirdly. You’re right about his beard - it’s appalling about the whole racism thing and it saddens me that people can be like that (as much as it saddens me to see the “taking life too serious” people) - his beard is still funny.
Finally are we expecting a new series of OC? i think i may have asked before but can’t remember the response.

perhaps a Post Script, i think i know why his beard is funny, it looks like a fake, like a stereotypical joke shop face beard, plus the fact that he cuts it under his bottom lip and doesn’t have the full facial fungus thing going on. Should he read this, i’m not mocking you sir, its a very nice beard as far as beards go, if you like it, keep it.

Tony Barnshaw at 1:23 am on March 12th, 2009

I refuse to believe that is a legitimate beard. It looks like one of them illusion things where it’s a face upside down as well.

Dan at 10:45 am on March 12th, 2009

Did you change a word in the article or is it me?

The article lifted my spirits considerably when I read it.  You don’t have to be po-faced about the beard to appreciate the gravity of the situation. The classical interlude was hilarious.  Now I feel in the know about what is cool and cutting edge.

Andy W at 12:21 pm on March 12th, 2009

“it’s important to fight against the People Who Take Life Too Seriously. “

Is there a better TV example of blowhards taking themselves 100x too seriously than the Poker Premier League ?

With the exception of the Swiss milkmaid of course ;-) Andy.

Steve at 12:56 pm on March 12th, 2009

Like 99% of people in this great country, I believe there’s no place for racism. It’s sickening that anyone should be bullied, tortured and intimidated because of the colour of their skin. It’s simply unacceptable, and I trust we all give Mr. Iqbal our unfaltering support in his case against the Bedfordshire force.

That said, it does look as though someone’s strapped a bearskin hat *under* his head instead of on it, or he’s got a magnet in his mouth and he’s dipped his chin in iron filings. Either way, it’s a sterling effort and I for one shall be adopting his beard as my profile picture on Facebook before the morning’s out.

It’s beard-o’-bees-tastic!

Victoria Coren at 2:14 pm on March 12th, 2009

I did change a line in the post - can’t remember what it was now.

& Kenn, aha, clearly you don’t follow the “news” page on this site which is updated monthly… March news is, yes, that we are filming a new series of Only Connect, hurray! Not sure when it will be broadcast - within a few months I’m sure - but certainly I’ll put it into the “news” of whichever month it’s turning up.

Victoria Coren at 2:21 pm on March 12th, 2009

Funny beard aside, the more I think about this story, the angrier I get. This week, the Mail has been full of furious reports about the Muslim protesters who waved placards at returning soldiers. Today’s Mail cartoon shows a Muslim couple going into a benefits office, telling each other that benefits are the only thing they don’t hate about Britain.
  Certainly, it’s scary that there are British people living in this country who see other British people as dangerous enemies. And gruesome to see soldiers being shouted at, when they have no control over government policy and they deserve gratitude even for doing what some of us may believe is the wrong thing.
  And yet here’s a British Muslim, Javid Iqbal, who wants to be a policeman - brave, patriotic, well-meaning, who is prepared to put his life in danger to keep the rest of us safe - and what happens? A group of white officers (not all of them I’m sure - I sort of love the police and believe that the majority of them are very good and brave people) make his life a misery; they treat him like an alien when he’s so completely “one of us”; and a page is given over to a columnist who wants to join in with that bullying! It’s disgraceful. You can’t really blame young British Muslims for being angry, can you? How amazing that this guy had so little anger in him that he was prepared to join up and stand alongside police to safeguard British society, and look how they treated him. It’s absolutely embarrassing.

Kenn at 2:59 pm on March 12th, 2009

Ah thanks for the update Victoria, i erm am a little bogged down doing my Dissertation for uni at the moment so i come, check the blog, comment and leave. This is not an excuse for not checking the news but merely the reason i haven’t checked the news for a few months.
On the soldiers front, i think it’s a disgrace no matter who you are, what faith you have or anything. These men risk their lives to keep us safe (just like the police) and you’re correct whether we agree with what they are being asked to do or not they should A) have our support and B) have our respect
Jeering them as they get off a plane after a tour abroad doing their job is nothing short of a disgrace.

Brian Jones at 3:01 pm on March 12th, 2009

I’m totally against discrimination, and whether PC Iqbal is being discriminated against because he is of another race, or because of his choice in facial hair, it’s still wrong.

I do like a laugh, and I do see the funny side in the man’s beard, but there’s a limit and some people can’t help but cross it.

Furthermore, it’s a disgrace that anyone in media should mock this man any more than what he suffered from his colleagues.

I’m glad you’re standing up for the guy Vicky, or is it Vin Diesel?

Steve at 3:10 pm on March 12th, 2009

It’s a slow day so I’ll walk the knife-edge of taste and decency!

I’d apologise for the behaviour of his colleagues if it didn’t open up a debate about ‘them and us’ which I vehemently disagree with. We’re all one, no matter the colour, but you do feel you ought to apologise in some way because, when it comes down to it, we’re all family.

I’ve seen police wade into areas I wouldn’t dare go and have nothing but the utmost respect. It goes further though. Respect should be shown no matter who someone is, epaulettes or not.

I wish Mr. Iqbal all the luck in the world, but moreover I hope he finds employment with colleagues who don’t read The Sun and love his beard. I think it’s a stunning piece of architecture.

Sam at 12:00 am on March 13th, 2009

Richard Littlejohn has always been a bit of a cunt. He writes for The Daily Mail though so what do you expect? A few years back now he got into an argument with Will Self, who, being the genius he is, humiliated him. There is a transcript here:

The Daily Mail is pathetic. Occasionally I come across a copy and read it and find it hilarious, then I realise people are influenced by this shit, and I get really depressed. Kind of like the beard, you see it and laugh, but when you realise what he has been through it is very sad and you feel bad for laughing at it in the first place.

Hmm. If nothing else we can always have a chuckle at The Daily Mail headline generator!

John at 11:31 am on March 14th, 2009

Apologies for pushing in with an unrelated subject… John Cooper Clarke: raconteur-extraordinaire, punk poet, and a thoroughly pretty good Manc.  He name-checked your dad towards the end of his set the other day.
Johnny Clarke - wot a guy; no beard but a hell of a hairdo.

Colin at 2:24 pm on March 14th, 2009

This sort of sums up the extremes we have. It seems we’re not sure if we can banter with someone if they are of a different race or religion but yet we can racially abuse them!

The other week “Plane Stupid” broke into my local airport, got themselves on the roof and on the runway and did what they do, held up flights. I was amazed to read afterwards that they were charged with breach of the peace. With all the security concerns we have, that’s the charge they face…..amazing! Just try breaking into an airport if you’re muslim and see what charges you find yourself up against.

AndytheDealer at 10:46 am on March 15th, 2009

As a chap who has on a couple of occasions grown one, I have to say, that beard is a work of art.  If PC Iqbal has to leave the force may I suggest a career in garden design, specialising in topiary as a possible option? No, I’m not taking the piss.

I’m glad I wasn’t at the concert with you because I would have been on the floor when the guy behind you complained. At that point my laughter would have been uncontainable.

The only time I think it’s wrong to laugh is when the source of your amusement is unaware of the mirth they are causing…..which of course makes it all the funnier.

The only solution must be to ban laughter.

Richard at 3:39 am on March 18th, 2009

He’s got the kind of wonderfully unambiguous facial features that you find in MB’s “Guess Who?”, why have they never produced a celebrity edition? I too hope he finds a suitable new job.

Nick at 4:07 pm on March 18th, 2009

i just remember the words of the Principia Discordia: ‘The human race will begin to solve all its problems on the day it ceases to take itself so seriously.’

R at 1:32 am on March 19th, 2009

Talking about laughing, when it’s actually a serious situation …. I’ve followed the Guardian’s ‘Tax Gap’ in light of recent events. Now THAT’s drivel!  A textbook example of extremely poorly researched, biased and laughably false journalism! These articles are not only full of half-truths, but contain (very easily) verifiable untruths!! Plain untruths! Worse than the worst tabloid!! Journalists should stick to the facts, regardless of their political views and goals, especially where specialised knowledge is involved. The only journalists I like are those who write about snogging and snowmen (I guess they know what they’re writing about :-)) The whole rest should be taught some serious beginner lessons in research.

Fitch at 9:28 pm on March 20th, 2009

I once tried to learn the trombone so I know what discrimination is!!!

Only Connext, can’t wait!

Martin at 9:22 am on March 27th, 2009

“It seems we’re not sure if we can banter with someone if they are of a different race or religion but yet we can racially abuse them!”

I have often thought this yet I laugh and joke with all my colleagues irrespective of their ethnicity. A while back one of my colleagues who is a Hindu came in late, looking a bit dishevelled on the gounds that his alarm clock had stopped working. His turban was all of a mess and so without thinking I said that he was having a bad turban day - he thought it hilarious.

Mike at 9:31 pm on March 31st, 2009

What was the outcome of this court case? Having a beard that looks like it’s been drawn onto a photo with a biro is penance enough for this poor chap, I hope justice prevailed. I’m glad he had the courage to speak out against his bullying colleagues.

And I hope we’ll be seeing you on our TV screens more in future Victoria, you provide a sassy class sadly lacking in many presenters.

Frank at 12:14 pm on April 30th, 2009

Police! My god! want a story! ....Ive got one involving me!
Currently fighting with the police over the most ridiculous, childish, pathetic joke!
We now need a lawer to protect us from the police do we!
Yes, looks like we do!....BUT if you cannot afford one ...they bully you, shaft you, cost you much more than they think,  THINK…. the police! look up that word in the dic…..if you can read!...... Muppets!
Im disgusted at what happened to me!
Im a 55yr old artist..(sculptor) modern art or *sh!t* as some desrcibe my work!
IPPC ... lol lol lol

Victoria Coren

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